Story by Kailee Shores / Contributing Writer
Photo by Bill Lickman / Contributing Photographer
Two men drew a crowd to the Student Union Commons on a recent Wednesday afternoon after one of them shouted Bible verses to students, warning that homosexuality is a sin.
Terry Cohea and Glenn Yoder from Believer’s Chapel at Tullahoma, a religious congregation with a recent presence at Middle Tennessee State University, preached their fire and brimstone brand of Christianity to passers-by.
The situation quickly devolved into a shouting match between the two men and students who supported the LGBTQ community.
In the days following the incident, another group of men appeared on campus. The Gideons, an organization dedicated to spreading the teachings of the Christian religion, was on the Student Union Commons handing out pocket copies of the New Testament to anybody who would take one.
These are two of many organizations not affiliated with MTSU that come each year to campus to exercise their free speech rights.
To speak freely on the Commons, Cohea and Yoder, as well as the Gideons, had their presence on campus approved by the Student Union staff.
“Non-sponsored, non-affiliated individuals or groups may rent facilities up to four times per year,” said Jimmy Hart, the university spokesman.
However, students are welcome to practice free speech anywhere on campus, given that the space has not been previously reserved and they are not disrupting academic instruction or the natural traffic of the university.
University Policy 100 “permits students to gather and use the generally accessible, open, outdoor areas of campus as traditional public forums for free speech and distribution of literature,” said Hart.
MTSU does not restrict student free speech to certain areas of campus, as some other universities do.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed free speech policies on college campuses. It was found that “approximately ten percent of institutions surveyed maintain ‘free speech zone’ policies, which limit student demonstrations and other expressive activities to small and/or out-of-the-way areas on campus.”
The university does not deny access to individuals such as Cohea, Yoder and the Gideons because “the speaker’s anticipated speech may be considered controversial,” said Sarah Sudak, Dean of Students.
While Cohea and Yoder spoke, students approached them with their ideas, opinions and questions.
“I have respect for what you are doing. Honestly, sir, it’s really brave what you are doing. However, I must ask a few questions,” said Wisdom Thompson, a freshman aerospace technology major, to Cohea.
Thompson and Cohea engaged in respectful debate, reflecting University Policy 103 on free speech that states that students and faculty should address ideas they disagree with by “openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose” rather than trying to obstruct free speech.
“We believe in the freedom of expression, and we believe that the university is a marketplace of ideas — some of which you will agree with and some of which you won’t, but we’ll agree and disagree in a civil manner commensurate with being a community of educated individuals,” said Dean Sudak.
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